Friday, October 30, 2009

Two gay guys walk into a strip club...

October 30

Undulating. That's a good word, and one that comes to mind when I think of “gentlemen’s clubs.”

Gentlemen’s clubs are, of course, places where men, gentlemanly or otherwise, get to spend time with scantily clad, often undulating women who are paid to be there. They are usually dark places that serve expensive but ill-prepared drinks and food you might not want to eat.

There are exceptions, of course, when it comes to the food. The Diamond Cabaret, a topless bar in Denver, was for years known as having some of the best steak in town. I don’t know whether it still is, but it might be.

And here in New York Robert's, developed with the help of chef Adam Perry Lang, was opened a couple of years ago at the Penthouse Executive Club and got a positive one-star review from New York Times critic Frank Bruni. The critic also took the opportunity of the review to go ahead and more-or-less come out as a gay man.

Many people in New York tittered with glee, which, it being 2007, I thought was, well, I’m pretty sure I’ve never used the word “puerile” before, but I think this is the right place for it. News that a food writer in New York City was more-or-less openly gay in 2007 shouldn't have been worth a single titter, but there you had it.

Anyway, there’s a new Robert’s in town. The owners of the Penthouse Executive Club bought the former Scores location in west Chelsea and reopened it with a Robert's inside. In charge of the food: Will Savarese, an alumnus of Le Cirque, Aureole, La Côte Basque and Westchester County institution La Crémaillère. He was executive chef at The Tap House, too.

I ate at the new Robert’s last week and, for a laugh, I invited my friend Clark Mitchell to dine with me. We both appreciated the irony of two gay men having steak at a girly bar, especially at one just a few doors down from The Eagle, arguably the most skeevy gay leather bar in all of New York City.

General manager Ed Norwick sat down with us over Martinis (mine: gin — Hendrick's at the waiter's suggestion — with olives; Clark's: gin — Beefeater — with a twist, because they didn’t have cocktail onions) and talked about plans to open more Robert's at gentlemen's clubs across the country. He explained that strip clubs and similar venues aren’t typically the first stop in an evening, and sometimes life (traffic, a phone call from the wife, what have you) gets in the way in the middle of an evening out. If guests start the night at a place with undulating women, well, there’s a good chance that they’ll stay.

For dinner, Clark and I split a porterhouse for two and drank a big Cabernet. He had an iceberg-and-blue-cheese salad — not, to his minor dismay, in wedge form — and I tried a nightly special of field greens, balsamic vinegar etc. Dessert was a sort of chocolate brownie cake.

Clark’s an editor at Travel + Leisure, and so while the guys at the table next to us bought dinner and drinks for their undulating women, we were left alone and spoke with concern and sadness about the demise of Gourmet magazine, and shared stories of our own publications’ adjustments in these difficult times.

Here at Nation’s Restaurant News, those adjustments are big. Next year the print magazine will be bi-weekly instead of weekly, and the content will be less news and more awesome analytical stuff — not too long, but smart — as well as an easy-to-use news synopsis in the front of the book (that’s what we in the magazine business call a magazine — a book).

For breaking news, of course, you can turn to our fact-packed web site, but you might as well go ahead and subscribe to the print version. Come on, all the cool people are doing it.

Thursday, October 29, 2009


October 29

I'm working on some new blog entries that I hope you’ll find fascinating, but in the meantime, I’d like to pass on to you, dear reader, a question from one of my colleagues: Has H1N1 affected the shared-plates fad (or trend, if you prefer) in restaurants?
Click on the poll to the right, and if you feel like being more detailed, please feel free to comment below.
Thank you.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

On rugby, service, and Bloomberg at Bill's Bar & Burger

October 20

Blain Howard played rugby in college.

That explains a lot about Blain, because Americans who play rugby are a little bit weird.

Normal people, mainstream people, play football or baseball or basketball. If they just want some exercise they play soccer or tennis, or they might swim. Hockey's fine in the northern states, Lacrosse is cool if you're a particular breed of white, upper-middle-class future doctor, lawyer or investment banker, or the future spouse of one.

But rugby?

Rugby players have chosen a sport that no one (in the United States) cares about but them, but it requires serious physical conditioning and is an intense, full-contact sport played without the sissy padding of football. Rugby games, I’m told, are played with brutal aggression, followed by pretty much mandatory consumption of alcohol with the other team.

In American Rugby, from what I gather, it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how much you can drink.

But unlike other niche tribes — the computer geeks, the science fiction nerds, the comic book dorks, Red Sox Nation — rugby players are diverse and have many interests. Sure, they use their bodies as weapons and shields and then drink until they fall down, but then they’re in punk rock bands or lock themselves in their rooms to play with their new computers, or go out and socialize like mainstream people might. I met a rugby player in culinary school, I knew a few in college.

My parents were friends with one who was a special ops military guy in Cambodia in the early 1970s. His wife introduced me to the Maryland crab boil, which is still probably my favorite way to eat anything, ever.

I’ve never met one who was boring or predictable.

Which explains Blain, who used to do mixed martial arts — he's 6'4", slim but solid — and now is a publicist for video games. He thinks he's a nerd because he likes comic books (excuse me, graphic novels) and science fiction and video games. His boss told him he wasn't smart enough to be a geek.

Or maybe he thinks he’s a dork because he’s not smart enough to be a nerd. I forget.

But he’s also friends with the Los Angeles reality TV star set and socializes and dates women and knows how to carry on a conversation at a dinner table.

He’s also smart as a whip, by the way.

And he’s a willing dinner companion, and someone with whom I can have serious discussions about zombie literature (he mentioned Socrates in there at some point — something about mankind's most raw desires and how zombies exemplify them).

Blain and I have broken bread twice in the past week-and-a-half, once at 48 and, last night, at Steve Hanson’s newest restaurant, Bill’s Bar & Burger.

Forty-Eight’s a new lounge on the ground floor of the McGraw Hill Building. That’s 6th Avenue and 48th Street, which is sort of no man's land for nightlife. West of Rockefeller Center, East of Times Square, where tourists fear to tread and locals wouldn’t bother. But many New Yorkers work there, and they could use a place to drink, and 48’s open until 2 a.m. during the week and 4 a.m. on weekends — something to remember if you ever need a nightcap after partying with a bunch of Midtown investment bankers.

Its owners had invited me in to check it out.

We had a terrific waitress — professionally chatty and alert, but she didn’t hover — and then we had all of the owners and management.

Individually, they were lovely, nice people who wanted to make sure we enjoyed ourselves, but as a group it seemed like one of them came by every 45 seconds to ask us something.

“Would you like a drink?”
“I just ordered one."

"Something to eat?”
“Yes, let me take a look at the menu.”

“How’s your drink?”
“I just got it, but it looks great.”

“How's the pizza?”
“I'm in the middle of my first bite right now, but I’ll keep you posted.”

Really, that’s the main theme of this entire blog — isn’t it? — where I eat and how I’m treated differently from the average diner. But it’s usually not quite as intense as that. Usually Blain and I have time to finish our reminiscences about Firefly or to assess the development of the Starbuck character in the last episodes of Battlestar Galactica without being interrupted with questions about how our bourbon is.

So I thought it was just an unusual fluke from overenthusiastic management on a relatively quiet Wednesday night in a lounge in a paradoxically remote part of central Midtown Manhattan.

And then we went to Bill’s Bar & Burger.
Bill's is in a very accessible part of the Meatpacking District and, although it just officially opened last Thursday, has already been the subject of much adulation.

A word about Steve Hanson and the restaurants in his BR Guest group: These are places like Blue Fin and Dos Caminos and Ruby Foo's — places that are good, but you don’t go there for the food (Fiamma, now closed, was an exception). You go because of the service and the drinks and the general vibe of the place. I think it was in one of Steve Hanson’s places that I realized what’s important to most guests in a restaurant. The most important part of a meal is who you eat with, next most important is the Steve Hanson stuff — service, ambience, vibe. Then, as long as the food is good enough, as long as it meets expectations, the customers will have a good time.

That’s not to say that BR Guest food isn’t good — and some of it’s terrific — it’s just not the point of those restaurants. Service and vibe are paramount.

So Blain and I were at a crowded but not packed BR Guest restaurant at 8 p.m. I was there a few minutes earlier and had already decided what I wanted, but the minute Blain sat down we were beset with questions about our drink order, which is, you know, reasonable and even desirable in a restaurant, and Blain, being a grown man and rugby player and thus capable of quickly scanning a beer menu, settled on the Ommegang, and I ordered an IPA.

“Are you ready to order your food?” our server asked.

I suggested that we might take a couple of minutes to do that.

Our server was great, and just like at 48, everyone else was gracious, but we had at least two managers covering for our server, who seemed perfectly capable of doing it himself.

I started to think maybe they just wanted to hang out with Blain, too, or perhaps they wanted to have an intellectual conversation about zombies as well. I mean, who doesn’t?

Or maybe they were particularly attentive because the man, Steve Hanson, was in the restaurant.

I didn’t notice him at first, or maybe he arrived later. But he was pretty low-key. I think I'd only seen him in a sharp business suit before. But he was casual last night, wandering around, fiddling with thermostats and such.

And then Michael Bloomberg walked in.

I’m usually not taken aback when celebrities walk into a restaurant. Well, okay, I’m a little taken aback, but there’s something thrilling and odd about having the mayor of New York come into the burger bar where you’re eating. He and Steve Hanson hugged and sat down to talk, and everyone else, being New Yorkers, went on enjoying their meal.
Although I couldn't help but tweet about it. Nor could this kid.

Blain, being a rugby player, had the good sense to take a picture

The mayor is the gray-haired guy in the window. Steve Hanson's to the left. The people in the foreground are probably perfectly nice people, but not germane to this blog entry.

What we ate and drank:

at 48,
meatballs with honey and pineapple glaze
seared skirt steak skewers with roasted red onion, grilled portobello, romaine lettuce and goat cheese vinaigrette
mini Cuban sandwiches (roasted pork, fontina, cotto ham, pickles, mustard and mayonnaise)
mini grilled cheese sandwiches (fontina and manchego with tomato and roasted tomato mayonnaise on challah)
mini pesto pizza with fresh mozzarella and Roma tomato
Bread pudding with almonds and cranberries
French Forty Eight (Hendrick's Gin, Canton ginger liqueur, lemon juice, sparkling wine, rosewater and strawberries)
St. Zipang (St. Germain elderflower liqueur, sparkling sake and yuzu)
Steve Collins (a sugar-free Tom Collins made with Bombay Sapphire, stevia, lemon juice, lime juice and ginger)
assorted whiskys

At Bill's,
French fries
Disco fries (smothered with gravy and melted cheese)
beer battered onion rings
The Bobcat (Bill's classic burger topped with New Mexico green chile and jack cheese)
The Fat Cat (a hamburger with caramelized onion and American cheese on an English muffin with lettuce, tomato and pickles on the side)
Key Lime Pie
assorted beers
Oreo (a milkshake of vanilla ice cream with Oreos chocolate syrup and a shot of Amaretto)
Peanut Butter Fluff (a milkshake of vanilla ice cream, peanut butter and banana with a shot of Frangelico)

Friday, October 16, 2009

Lying low, in public

October 16

Sometimes it’s simply more work than I want it to be to find someone to join me for dinner. Maybe I’ve been invited to something at the last minute, maybe I can’t figure out which of my friends would be most suitable to join me at a particular restaurant, maybe I don’t feel like strong-arming someone into joining me in Queens. But twice this week I’ve dined solo.

I have no qualms about eating alone. I enjoy my own company, and it let’s me focus on the food or my surroundings, or to stare out the window and watch the people go by.

Actually, yesterday I didn’t watch people go by, I tried to piece together the drama that seemed to be unfolding across the street from ’wichcraft on 20th St.

That unit of Tom Colicchio’s fast-casual sandwich chain has been serving dinner, full-on dinner with servers and beer and wine and cloth napkins, since April — quietly, for regular customers, to see if it would work.

It seems to have worked, because they’ve decided to go public with it and will likely be offering dinner at some other ’wichcraft units soon.

They got a good turnout for their press dinner. I arrived early, at 6, because I was tardy in RSVPing to the invitation to dine there and was told that all the prime time tables were booked.

Dinner is being served upstairs at that ’wichcraft, and I was seated at the window. I had a micro-brew pale ale from Maine and sampled an avocado-and-radish salad as the sun set. It was getting pretty dark by the time I was having my anchovies and gruyère on grilled bread, and by the time my pork and pickle had arrived (pulled pork with slightly sweet dill pickles and brown grainy mustard on thick bread), I had become fascinated by the activity in the building across the street, where everyone apparently belongs to a religion whose practitioners don’t believe in curtains or window shades of any kind.

One window was the locker room for the Equinox gym, so that was fun, and the other seemed to be some sort of office, but with bookcases and a couch. Not only was it lighted as though it were a stage, but everyone in there gesticulated like they were on stage. One woman walked in and dramatically plopped herself in a chair that looked like it was at a desk with a computer, although I couldn't be sure. A guy walked in and spoke using grand gestures, and laughed big laughs, leaning back for dramatic effect. Another guy walked in and got the first guy briefly in a playful fake headlock in the way that they do in TV and movies but not very often at all in real life.

I was fascinated, and continued to watch as I ate my walnut-apple crumble with vanilla ice cream and drank my espresso.

I was sorry to leave, but I imagined my table was reserved for someone else soon, so I got up and chatted briefly with Matt Lee, who was two tables away with his wife and five-week-old son, Arthur, who was resting peacefully in his stroller in the way that babies usually don’t.

My colleagues Elissa Elan and Ellen Koteff had RSVPed earlier, and so they had just recently sat down and were snacking on shishito peppers as I was leaving. I joined them briefly to give them ordering advice and to discuss Balloon Boy Falcon Heene (or I guess, really, Non-Balloon Boy, since the kid was never in the runaway balloon to begin with).

Two nights before that I went to Cávo, a 10-year-old restaurant in Queens (Astoria, to be more precise) that had recently hired a pretty big gun to be its chef, Richard Farnabe.

Farnabe was the chef of a restaurant that Drew Nieporent opened in Midtown about 10 years ago called Berkeley — serving California cuisine and playing music from the 1960s. It only lasted for about 10 minutes. But Farnabe landed on his feet as chef of Lotus, which was one of the hottest tickets in town in the pre-9/11 era. He then worked at Bruno Jamais, and was also corporate chef for Milos.

I hadn’t heard about him in awhile when I was told he was at Cávo, and it seemed reasonable to check him out on a quiet Tuesday night.

Cávo’s big and beautiful, with a lounge that’s like a glamorous cavern and a spacious, dark-colored, big-shouldered dining room in the back. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised when I find grand and beautiful places in Queens, and it just shows that I am a parochial boob of a Brooklynite, because I was surprised.

Manager Jesse Normand entertained me between courses of fried stuffed zuchinni blossoms, a chicken-and-leek pie that was Farnabe's take on Spanakopita, and a grilled, pepper-crusted tuna loin that tasted just like steak au poivre.

Dessert was cheesecake with sour cherries.

I noticed sour cherries were served with the chocolate dessert on ’wichcraft's dinner menu, too. I think that just might be the fruit of this autumn.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Organika, and the fact that I look like Jason Alexander

October 6

My friend Kenyon Phillips is many things — actor, copy writer, singer, musician. He's also a historian of music, film, pop culture and anything related to sex.
I have, for example, learned from him that Mussolini liked strong-smelling women, and that while it was considered normal in ancient Greece for men to take boys aged 12 and up as, um, companions, if the men were seen at schools where children under the age of 12 were present, they could be beheaded.
Kenyon’s also a vegetarian, so I must choose carefully when dining with him. He’s an easygoing guy, so he’d find something to eat anywhere we went, but I want him to truly enjoy his food, and I want the restaurant to be one that embraces vegetarians and can show their talent without using animal protein.
So we went to Organika, a new little Italian restaurant that opened in July in the West Village, right next door to SushiSamba 7.
We spoke of many things, as friends do, including the fact that I am frequently told that I look like actors who are popular, but not for their looks. Wallace Shawn is one example, and when The Princess Bride was a popular movie I was frequently asked to say “inconceivable.”
I am glad that I lived in Thailand during much of the run of Seinfeld, because when I was in the United States I couldn’t be outside for 20 minutes without somebody shouting “George!” or at the very least pointing out that I look like Jason Alexander.
Observations that I resembled these actors were not, I would insist, with all due respect to Wallace Shawn and Jason Alexander, compliments.
I would be told that Wallace Shawn was in fact a great actor and that Jason Alexander was not only popular, but he could sing and dance, too. All true, but no one said I acted like Wallace Shawn or danced like Jason Alexander, they said I looked like them. And while they might be cute in a cuddly sort of way, like a teddy bear or a duck, they were not sex symbols, and that’s something that I think we all would like to be on some level. I certainly would.
Au contraire, Kenyon told me — not about people wanting to be sex symbols, but about Jason Alexander not being one (Kenyon looks like a rugged Jared Leto, by the way, and is possibly the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen in real life).
Jason Alexander was, in fact, the romantic lead in a McDonald’s ad in the mid-1980s, Kenyon said.
And he was good enough to forward the link to me.
You must click on it. Oh, you must.

What we ate:
Sfornato di Melanzane (baked eggplant, Parmesan, basil, tomato purée)
Torre Caprese (stacked mozzarella, tomato, basil sprouts, roasted peppers and basil oil)
A pizza with mushrooms, arugula and truffle oil
Tagliatelle Bosco (ribbon pasta with garlic, zucchini, wild mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, basil and cream)

Monday, October 05, 2009

Sad that Gourmet’s closing

October 5

“I can’t believe it!” everyone keeps saying when hearing the news that Condé Nast has decided to cease publication of Gourmet magazine.
But then they admit that they can, in fact, believe it, because these are awful times in the world of publishing. Gourmet is not the first big title to say good-bye, and I doubt that it will be the last.
But still, it’s a sad day in the food-writing world and it didn’t seem quite right to let it to go by without acknowledging it.
I had a couple of groups of visitors to the office today.
One group came from Lemaire, an old-school fine dining restaurant in Richmond, Va., that, like so many fine dining restaurants, has reconcepted itself to make it more accessible to a wider variety of guests and occasions, offering things like braised rabbit sliders on jalapeño cornbread and specialty cocktails using local herbs and such (restaurant director Ben Eubanks is trying to coin the term “farm to glass”).
They brought me a gift basket of Virginia ham and Virginia peanuts and some little chocolates and an alligator Christmas tree ornament (the alligator is an important symbol of Lemaire dating back to an earlier time, when it was fashionable for Virginia ladies to wear baby alligators on short chains, sort of as brooches — I couldn’t make this stuff up) and a trivet with a recipe for spoonbread on it.
They’d tried to drop off a similar basket to someone at Gourmet on the way to meet with someone at Bon Appétit, and were told the bad news and that they probably shouldn’t leave the basket.
I think they said they couldn’t believe it.
My other visitor was a representative from Sonic Drive-In, who came in just to touch base and talk about flavor trends. She said the mango drinks they sold as limited time offerings this summer did well — probably not well enough to be brought back full-time, but they got a lot of anecdotal feedback asking when it would come back.
She also said that cranberry Diet Dr. Pepper is delicious. So that’s good to know.
She said she was sad that Gourmet was closing, too.

Live blogging from MUFSO

October 5,

I’m not attending our big annual Multi-Unit Foodservice Operators conference, because someone has to man the fort here in New York, feeding the hungry beasts that are a weekly magazine, live web site etc., so I'm doing the next best thing and reading the blog of my colleagues who are there. I think you should, too.